I was really quite excited about going to see the V&A’s ‘Power of Making’. I rushed down to the opening after a work event and just made the last half hour, peeking over the shoulders of champagne-swilling guests to read the exhibit labels. But as beautiful, varied – and often odd – as some of the objects were, I left feeling something was missing.
When I was little, and still when I was not so little, we used to go almost every year to the Cotswold Wildlife Park. Most people probably haven’t been to, nor heard of, the Cotswold Wildlife Park; but it was a permanent fixture of my childhood, equivalent in my head from a very early age with the word ‘zoo’.
Above and beyond the awesome big cat section, the toy train (just like being on safari I thought), the adventure playground and the vast, peacock-strewn lawns of a very elegant private house where we always had our picnic, my favourite feature of the Cotswold Wildlife Park was the glassmith.
If you went into the bat house and up some very unlikely looking stairs, at the top you would find a small workshop. Shelves of tiny crystal animals filled the walls, and in one corner the man himself – a magician as far as I was concerned – sat all day, conjuring tiny fragile figures out of glowing molten glass. I don’t know if you’ve ever watched someone blowing glass, but it is mesmerising: the array of tiny tools, the changing colours as the glass cools, the unlikely shapes that all of a sudden, with a flick of the wrist, become something recognisable. My favourite trick was the chain of elephants, in descending size like Russian dolls, looped together trunk to tail. It wasn’t often that I came away without clutching some tiny glass creature – a hedgehog, a hippo – all wrapped up in tissue paper. But as pretty as the figures were, the thing that caught my attention was always the wondrous process of making.
‘To make’ is a verb. The Power of Making show is a room full of nouns. And some of them are so intricate, bizarre, or baffling to look at, it is unfortunately hard to imagine how they were made. Perhaps this is only a problem for me: other visitors might be just as content to see the finished product as the half-finished form emerging under the maker’s hands. But the show’s blurb does say the intention is to ‘encourage visitors to consider the process of making, not just the results’. Admittedly there are a few films of makers doing their thing; there was a silversmith present at the opening, etching away at a knife handle; there is a programme of demonstrations and a weekly ‘tinker space’; the exhibition guide contains a ‘glossary of techniques and processes’. But this is all a side-show to the main attraction. The only thing that unites this eclectic collection of objects is that they were crafted by unbelievably skilled, probably very patient people, and the people are by and large missing.
I have to admit I’m not sure how you would achieve the desired effect of showcasing ‘making’ rather than ‘made objects’, without simply setting up a load of craftsmen in a room to tinker away – which is not very original and perhaps not even appropriate for a setting like the V&A, a collection of collections. But I do think, in spite of the evident care and expertise with which the show has been curated and designed (it all looks beautiful), they have missed a trick. The fascination of the Cotswold Wildlife Park glassmith eluded me.
Power of Making is the second exhibition in the V&A/Crafts Council partnership.
6 September 2011 – 2 January 2012 in the Porter Gallery